11-year old Avi was just awarded a trip to visit his cousins in Detroit – because he didn’t get into trouble in school or fight with his siblings for one week. The prize his parents originally had in mind was a new speed bike, but when that failed to motivate him sufficiently, they searched for a more appealing incentive.
In the process, they passed over gameboys, roller blades, a palm pilot, a computer and a camcorder. That’s because Avi had already won those.
He acquired each one of those through a combination of cajoling, arguing and bargaining. After each surrender, his father looked at his mother and said in bewilderment, “When I was a boy, I felt lucky to have a shirt on my back and shoes without holes. What are we running here, a home or a department store?”
And his mother would respond, “Today’s world is different. Would you rather he run around with that wild bunch of kids and get into all kinds of trouble?”
Avi’s energy level had always overwhelmed his parents. From the time he was five or six he needed a high level of stimulation in order to keep his behavior within bounds, already beyond the norm. Although his parents tried to keep one step ahead of him by supplying him with toys, entertainment and outlets for recreation, it began to seem as if nothing would ever satisfy him.
His teachers reported that Avi was often at the center of quarrels between students. “He seems to enjoy provoking altercation, just for the excitement of it,” wrote his fourth grade English teacher in an end-of-the-year assessment.
His scholastic performance was uneven. When the subject matter was dramatic enough to hold his attention, Avi could do above average work. More often than not, however, Avi lapsed into daydreaming, staring out the window or focusing on irrelevant things around him. He fiddled with his pencils and other items in his desk, passed notes, made irrelevant comments and silly jokes, and disturbed his classmates in a variety of ways.
“When Avi is absent, it’s a different kind of day,” his fifth grade teacher told the principal. “The atmosphere is calmer and we get much more accomplished. We really have to get to the bottom of his problems.”
Things came to a head after a parent-teachers conference where Avi’s parents were floored by the teacher’s suggestion that they, his parents, might be exacerbating Avi’s problems, rather than helping him to get a handle on them.
“Avi seems to be collecting more prizes in a month than most kids do in a year,” the teacher told Avi’s parents. “He brings these things to school and frankly, I wonder whether they might be contributing to his difficulties in class.”
“Do you mean he plays with them in the middle of class?”
“No, I don’t allow them to be anywhere near him during class. My point is that because he has already been given so many dazzling prizes, it’s almost impossible for me, as his teacher, to come up with any kind of incentive that would work with him. Can I ask what he is doing to earn all these fabulous rewards?”
“They’re basically for good behavior at home,” Avi’s mother said. “He gets so rambunctious,” his father explained, “you know, teasing his siblings, stirring thing up—things were always in an uproar.”
“But aren’t you overdoing it? These big, expensive prizes may buy you some peace at home, but it seems it’s backfiring at school. Here he has a great deal of trouble with self-control, with waiting his turn, not calling out, not interrupting. He needs an extra high level of stimulation to keep him going at the most ordinary task.”
Avi’s mother went on the defensive. “You must think we’re just buying him off, taking the easy way out. That’s not fair! We work with him constantly. But he’s always needed more than—more than we could give him.”
Her husband suddenly turned to her.
“Miriam, let’s face it. He’s got us wrapped around his finger. He’s getting lavishly rewarded for behavior that’s not even especially good, just good enough. And each time, the prize has to be bigger and better while he delivers less and less.”
He turned back to the teacher wearily, holding up his hand to forestall his wife’s objections.
“I don’t know about my wife but I’m at my wit’s end. What do you suggest we do?
The Insatiable Child
If the above scenario has a familiar ring to it, it’s because all of us have, at one time or another, met the child who incessantly craves excitement, new possessions and intense experiences of all kinds—the child who seems insatiable. Such a child, in order to stay focused and content, must constantly experience a rich payback in intellectual or emotional gratification.Rifka Schonfeld